In a Word ... Bone-fire

You may recall that towards the end of June last year in this column I wrote about Bonfire Night, which takes place on St John's Eve, or June 23rd, every year in the west of Ireland mainly.

As then explained, bonfire is derived from a 16th-century Middle English word banefire which, it won't surprise you to hear, originally concerned a fire where bones were burned.

When I was growing up, bonfire was actually pronounced “bonefire”. I used think this had more to do with accent than meaning and that the accurate pronunciation was probably bonfire. Then I discovered the Irish for bonfire was “tine chnámh” or fire of bones. Which I had forgotten and didn’t refer to last year.

I was reminded of it recently when someone reposted the In a Word column from last year on Facebook and my old friend Mary Wrafter Heraty provoked memories with a comment.


She wrote “Tine Cnámh, as Gaeilge, fire of bones, because in the past old bones were burned in the bonfire. The ashes were taken the following morning and symbolically spread on the land for the fruitfulness of crops.”

She recalled such bonfires from her rural childhood in Mayo and how "we would say a prayer around the fire with our parents and hold lighted furze (we called them whin) bushes high in the air as we cheered to our neighbours in unison yelling 'up' our own townland."

Looking back, she could “still smell the burning embers, see the sparks disappearing into the night sky and our red faces from being too near the fire – nice memories!” Mary has a fine line in the lyrical, as you can see.

Indeed I remember, from my own rural upbringing in the townland of Mullen in northwest Roscommon, such bonfires at the crossroads near our house and how my grandfather would take lit embers from the fire and, symbolically, place them into one of our fields “for luck”. Probably the remains of some old pagan fertility ritual.

That was before our family traversed the 10km and several galaxies to the grand metropolis of Ballaghaderreen.

There such bonfires in those pre-EU directive days involved lots of tyres, not bones, and were accompanied by battles between street gangs where bones were more likely broken than burnt.

Ah yes, the good old days.